Archive for the ‘Peggy Lee’ Category

Sunday July 20th, 1969, marked a momentous moment in the history of humankind: Neil Armstrong stepped from the lunar module Eagle and descended a ladder to the surface of the moon. After touching ground at 10:56pm ET, he paused to say, “that’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” (The “a” is in brackets because it wasn’t audible on the transmission beamed to the 600 million people watching on Earth.)

The U.S. president – the 37th in the country’s history – was Richard M. Nixon, who took the oath of office six months earlier. His time in office was accented by chicanery, cynicism and brilliance, though much of that was yet to come. At this point in time, though he was viewed with disdain by some, his approval ratings were routinely in the 60s.

On the economic front, the unemployment rate began the year at 3.4 percent and ended at 3.9 percent. Everyone who wanted one had a job, just about. Inflation, on the other hand, was a source of concern: When Nixon took office, it was already high at 4.4 percent, and it continued to inch higher each month. 

When it came to foreign affairs – specifically, the Vietnam War – this very month marked two significant events: the first U.S. troop withdrawals from Vietnam occurred on the 8th; and, on July 25th, the “Nixon Doctrine” – aka the Vietnamization of the war – was announced. The plan was for the U.S. to turn over the defense of South Vietnam to the South Vietnamese.

In the Philly region, it was an atypical summer’s day, topping out at a mere 78 degrees (Fahrenheit). The Phillies didn’t take advantage of the cool weather, however, as starting pitcher Bill Champion failed to live up to his surname in a 6-1 loss to the Chicago Cubs at Connie Mack Stadium.

Among the movies playing in the theaters: Hook, Line & Sinker, True Grit, The Wild Bunch, and Easy Rider, which was released on July 14th. As I’ve noted before, however, this was the era when it could take a movie six or more months to make it to your local cinema.

Aside from the moon transmission, TV was basically in yesteryear’s DVR mode – rerun season. It’s when folks caught up on episodes they had missed.

In the world of music, June and July 1969 saw the release of a few notable – and not-so-notable – albums, including Roberta Flack’s First Take, Elvis Presley’s From Elvis in Memphis, Fairport Convention’s Unhalfbricking, Tim Buckley’s Happy Sad, The Doors’ Soft Parade, and Yes’ eponymous debut. 

And with that, here’s today’s Top 5: July 20, 1969 (via Weekly Top 40; the chart is for the 19th).

1) Zager and Evans – “In the Year 2525.” The next time a baby boomer laments the state of today’s music, point them to this song. And laugh. Because on July 20th, 1969 – less than a month before Woodstock – this “prophetic” song was the No. 1 song in the land.

And for you Gen-Xers feeling smug right now, here’s R.E.M. covering it:

2) Blood, Sweat & Tears – “Spinning Wheel.” Holding steady at No. 2 for a second week is this jaunty philosophical ode, which was penned by BS&T singer David Clayton-Thomas. 

To again leave the pop charts for a moment, earlier in the year Peggy Lee released an effervescent rendition of the song that reached No. 24 on the Easy Listening charts…

3) Three Dog Night – “One.” Dropping from No. 5 to No. 6 is this song, which I first heard in the mid-1970s on a commercial for a mail-order compilation. The song was written and originally recorded by Harry Nilsson, who released it in 1968.

And – yes, this is a trend – Aimee Mann recorded “One” for the For the Love of Nilsson tribute album in 1995. It also appeared on the soundtrack for Magnolia.

4) Elvis Presley – “In the Ghetto.” Elvis continued his comeback with this classic song written by Mac Davis that tackles poverty. (Sad to say, 50 years later, it remains as relevant as it was then.)

A few decades years later, on the 1998 Lilith Fair tour, Natalie Merchant – accompanied by Tracy Chapman – sang the song.

5) Jackie DeShannon – “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.” One of the week’s “power plays” is this catchy plea for love, which jumps from No. 55 to 48. FYI: Jackie co-wrote it.

And, finally, Dolly Parton recorded a wonderful version of the song for her 1993 album Slow Dancing With the Moon. Here she is singing it a few months earlier on the CMA Awards… 

Opening in 1958 New York City, the Amazon Prime series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a remarkable comedy-drama about housewife-mother Miriam “Midge” Maisel’s metamorphosis into a stand-up comic. To share more would be to spill spoilers, I think, so I’ll just say that it’s one of the freshest, funniest and emotionally honest dramas of the past few years. (If it’s spoilers you want, and/or just more context, this Vulture article should do the trick while this New York Times Magazine piece fills in the blanks on Rachel Brosnahan, who plays Midge.)

The brainchild of Gilmore Girls mastermind Amy Sherman-Palladino, the series recreates the era’s Upper West Side scene to a proverbial T. And while there are a few timeline flaws within the storyline – such as when Bob Newhart’s classic The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart comedy LP was released – they’re not important. What is: the story, characters and the snappy verbal volleys, which are often wickedly funny – especially when Midge’s nascent manager, Susie (Alex Borstein), is involved.

So, for today’s Top 5: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel – as in, songs from the show’s stellar soundtrack. As with the storyline, there are some timeline issues (Barbra Streisand didn’t release “Happy Days Are Here Again” until 1963), but the tunes perfectly accent the scenes.

1) Peggy Lee – “It’s a Good Day.” This classic song, cowritten by Peggy and her then-husband Dave Balbour, made it to No. 16 on the charts.

2) Dinah Washington – “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart.” From the jazz vocalist’s 1954 album, After Hours With Miss D, which AllMusic calls “one of the best jam sessions ever recorded.”

3) Frank Sinatra – “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.” The title song to Sinatra’s 1955 long-player, In the Wee Small Hours, the single reached No. 2 on the charts; and the album is considered a classic.

4) Barbra Streisand – “Happy Days Are Here Again.” In 1963, Streisand was still and up-and-coming Broadway performer and singer. Here she is on the Dinah Shore show in May of that year…

5) Julie London – “Cry Me a River.” Long before her Emergency! days, Julie was a well-known singer, and this torch song – which hit No. 9 on the pop charts in 1955 – may be her best. This performance is from a 1964 Japanese TV special.

fullsizeoutput_11c8According to Newsweek, America’s white majority was a troubled lot as the world’s clock prepared to flip from 1969 to 1970: “Fewer than one in three of the working-class group say they are better off now than five years ago; by contrast, 44 percent of the white-collar workers polled feel more prosperous. And the blue-collar group is even less confident about the future. Only 28 percent expect to be better off five years from now.”

They had reason to be apprehensive. While unemployment was low, inflation was on the rise and, as a result, wages – even with decent raises – were stagnant or, worse, slipping. What cost $100 at the end of 1968 cost $105.46 at the end of 1969. That $5.46 difference may not sound like much in and of itself, but when you add together lots of $100 outlays…well, it adds up. Fast. There was also the matter of the never-ending war in Vietnam, where more than 11,000 Americans died this year alone. (As the people were beginning to realize, Richard Nixon had lied when he claimed during the ’68 campaign to have a “secret plan” to end it.)

That said, have no fear: I’m not launching a broadside about how people were directing their wrath at the wrong targets. (That’s an age-old American tradition, after all.) Instead, here are some of the pictures used to illustrate the era’s “forgotten” Americans:

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And, with that, today’s Top 5: October 6, 1969. Here are five songs from the Weekly Top 40 chart ending October 4th that have stood the test of time…

1) The Archies – “Sugar, Sugar.” This sweet confection, co-written by Jeff Barry and Andy Kim, was in its third week at No. 1 and was on its way to become the year’s biggest hit.

2) The Youngbloods – “Get Together.” The No. 13 single this week was this Dino Valenti-written song. First recorded by the Kingston Trio in 1964, it was also recorded by (among others) Judy Collins, We Five, Jefferson Airplane and the Staple Singers. As detailed in its Wikipedia entry, the Youngbloods originally released this version as a single in 1967, but failed to make the Top 50 with it. In 1969, however, it was resurrected by the National Conference of Christians and Jews for a radio commercial, re-released as a single and, eventually, made it to No. 5 in the charts.

3) 5th Dimension – “Wedding Bell Blues.” The No. 37 song for the week is this Laura Nyro-penned classic by the 5th Dimension. According to Wikipedia, one reason the group decided to record it was because Marilyn McCoo was due to marry fellow member Billy Davis Jr., which gave the lyrics an added (comic) weight.

4) Peggy Lee – “Is That All There Is?” One of the power-plays for the week is this classic Peggy Lee song, which jumped from No. 76 to 50. It would eventually make it to No. 11, her first Top 20 hit since “Fever” in 1958. (Peggy released a string of very good albums in the late ’60s that are well worth seeking out.)

5) Crosby, Stills & Nash – “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” New this week, at No. 86, is Stephen Stills’ sublime song suite for Judy Collins.

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Favorite movies – everybody has some. Mine include Almost Famous, American Beauty, Billy Jack, Casablanca, Grease, Rear Window, Serenity, Some Like It Hot, the Bourne trilogy and last year’s big-screen Veronica Mars flick, among others. A few are stone-cold classics. Others – some might call them mediocre or even dreck. But, so what? I enjoy them.

Beyond the Sea, the 2004 Kevin Spacey film about Bobby Darin, is yet another favorite. It’s flawed, for sure – and something I may never have seen save for my mother-in-law, who loves going to the movies. As a result, for a time last decade, we did just that. In this particular instance, the film before had been a bore – a French film that should have been called Ennui. Ennui, Part II, was next on the docket – if my mother-in-law had her way, that is. Diane, however, suggested we see the new Kevin Spacey movie instead as a way of placating me.

Understand, all I knew about Darin at the time was “Splish Splash” and “Dream Lover”; and only from hearing them on Happy Days and Michael St. Johns’ Saturday night oldies show in the mid-to-late 1970s. Darin made his mark, of course, when he graduated from pop ’n’ roll to “Mack the Knife” and became an adult-contemporary/supper-club performer with a knack for making every song he sang his. That’s how I describe him now, mind you. In December 2004, however, when presented with the option of seeing Beyond the Sea, I simply figured: It’s Spacey. Non-French. Why not?

Suffice it to say, the movie proved to be a revelation. Spacey’s performance led me to buy the soundtrack, and then an actual Darin best-of, which in turn led to various live sets and studio albums. The movie also led, indirectly, to more than just Darin. Prior, I gave short shrift to the supper-club musicians of yore – I was a kid of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, after all, raised on rock, pop, country, folk, R&B and soul. I’d been led to believe that Darin and what (I mistakenly thought) he represented just weren’t cool.

Beyond the Sea taught me that I was wrong.

That’s a rather long-winded introduction to this next bit: One day, while browsing Bobby Darin CDs on Amazon, I noticed a Peggy Lee collection listed under the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought…” recommendations. I made a mental note, moved on. I’d seen her name from time to time, as most of a certain age have, and was familiar with her classic “Fever”…

…but that was it.

A year-or-so later – yes, that’s how long it can take me to pull the trigger on a purchase (I am great at not making up my mind) – I plunked down $33 for the 4-CD Singles Collection. The sales price was too good to pass up.

My short-and-simple review of the set, then and now: There aren’t enough superlatives to describe it. At her best, regardless of genre (and the collection veers from big band to swing to late-‘60s/early ‘70s adult contemporary), she’s living the lyrics as she sings them – happy, sad, sensual, world-weary, what have you. Over time, the set led to other Peggy Lee albums, both on CD and iTunes and/or Amazon downloads – especially the latter, due to Amazon’s (at the time) frequent sales. One download, from Amazon, was her collaboration with legendary jazz pianist George Shearing, Beauty and the Beat! At $2.99, it was a steal; and it quickly became my second favorite Peggy Lee set, with only the sultry Black Coffee ranking ahead of it.

Those were the days, I hasten to add, when I couldn’t discern a difference between CD-quality and downloads – not because of my ears, but my speakers. Most of my listening, then and now, comes here, at my desk – and my desktop computer speakers at the time, while decent, just weren’t good enough. CDs, downloads and YouTube videos sounded the same; and because I made mix CDs from what was on my computer for the car, what I heard on my car’s speakers sounded as good (or bad, depending on how one looks at it). It wasn’t until I upgraded the speakers in 2010, after a year-plus of deliberating, that I realized how foolish I’d been.

The thousands of CDs that I’d encoded at 256kbps and 320kbps became a figurative albatross around my neck. Mind you, the sound is akin to FM radio – decent, if somewhat distant and thin. And the albums and songs I’d bought at those bit-rates were… a sign of my ignorance. That’s why, in 2010, I began encoding everything as ALAC (the Apple equivalent of FLAC). Sure, they took up more room – but the sonic results were more than worth that (small) sacrifice.

Well, last night, thanks to a birthday gift (certificate) from my friend Luanne a few weeks back, I downloaded Beauty and the Beat! from HDTracks.com in full 24-bit, 192kHz glory – that means the master tape (or close equivalent) was encoded into digital at those settings and, for download purposes, not dumbed down to 16-bit/44.1kHz CD settings (or worse). I.e., it’s as close to the original as possible. I loaded the album onto my Pono Player and…wow. Just wow. The Amazon download sounds decent – like I said above, akin to FM radio. The high-res download, on the other hand, sounds like Peggy Lee is singing in my ear.

The set, I should mention, is billed as live, but is actually a studio set with the applause spliced in. Shearing and band have some wondrous instrumentals – especially “Mambo in Miami” and “Isn’t It Romantic”; Shearing’s piano reverberates as if you’re in the room with him, and the percussion…have I said “wow”? Check out the bass run on “Satin Doll.” The reason for purchasing it, though, is Peggy Lee. Her vocals are beyond belief. “Do I Love You,” “I Lost My Sugar in Salt Lake City,” “Blue Prelude,” “Always True to You in My Fashion” and “There’ll Be Another Spring” sound – well, I already said it’s like she’s singing in your ear. If you close your eyes, you’ll swear that’s the case.

It makes me yearn to hear Black Coffee – both the album and title track – in high-resolution.

And, listening to “Blue Prelude” as I type, I realize that I have none other than Kevin Spacey – and my mother-in-law, of all people – to thank for introducing me to Peggy Lee. If not for her penchant for movies, and Spacey’s decision to make Beyond the Sea, I never would have discovered Bobby Darin and, through him (and Amazon), Peggy Lee. And if not for Peggy Lee, my discovery of Melody Gardot – her modern-day heir, in my opinion – might not have happened.

The point of this too-long post? Don’t discount the decades that came before one’s birth; nor genres of music you assume you’ll dislike. There are too many good sounds to be enjoyed; and history to be learned.

Oh – and the Pono Store needs gift certificates.